Joe Grant’s Short Shorts: The Mount Hiei International Trail Run—Legacy of Japan’s Marathon MonksTuesday, November 6, 2018
“Buddhism can never be understood purely through the intellect; it must be experienced: 'Learn through the eyes, practice with the feet.' The manner in which a suitable practice unfolds is known as innen in Japanese. In is composed of the inner factors, the stirring of the Buddha-mind from deep within; en are the circumstances in which the drama is played out.” John Stevens - The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei
I’ve been running for roughly two and half hours through a wall of heat and moisture akin to a wet sauna. The stifling air stagnates beneath the thick forest canopy. I can feel my pulse thumping under the strap of my watch band. I pass numerous temples, some bright red, others of simple earth tones blending into the foliage alongside elaborate shrines bearing the effigy of the Buddha. Long segments of trail on Hieizan (Mt. Hiei) are steep and sinuous, laced with roots and rocks. They are interspersed with tiny stairs, tedious to navigate with my large Western feet. I’d arrived in Kyoto from Colorado just 48 hours prior for the Mt. Hiei International Trail Run—a 50 miler which is part race, part cultural event, created to give lay-people an insight into the lives of Japan’s marathon monks and experience Hieizan, their place of practice.
The monks are part of the Tendai Buddhist sect, the teachings of which profess that enlightenment can be attained in this life through devotion and ascetic practices. The ultimate expression of this is known as sennichi kaihōgyō—a 1,000-day challenge.
Undertaken over a period of seven years, a chosen monk will undergo a rigorous training regimen, running a marathon a day for 100 consecutive days around a circuit on Hieizan. On the fourth and fifth year, the 100 consecutive day running streak is performed twice. This five-year period, totaling 700 days of running, culminates with dōiri—a nine day fast where the monk sits in meditation without food, water, sleep or rest. The monk emerges in a state of awakening and will go on to complete the 1000-day challenge over the final two years of training, where the distance of the consecutive runs increases to 52.5 miles each day.
“Buddhism can never be understood purely through the intellect; it must be experienced: 'Learn through the eyes, practice with the feet.'"
I’ve rarely experienced such intense jet lag, and now over seven hours into the race, my ability to stay focused is waning. I shuffle along with difficulty, struggling to make sense of the intermeshing of ancient and modern Japan, where a vending machine sits just ‘round the corner from a thousand-year-old temple. The oppressive heat compounded with the fatigue accentuates my state of mental fog and confusion.
I snap out of my distracted musings as the 4th place runner passes by me while I’m walking up a gradual incline. He smiles and declares “I feel very bad, but now good recovery.” I watch him pull away from me, running up the climb ahead.
My first thought is that I’m too hot to care and that finishing will be good enough at this point. Then a mix of ego and wanting to honor the invitation and the privilege given to me to run this race makes me think that I should at least try to keep him in sight for as long as I can.
We proceed to leapfrog for the next several miles. Without speaking, we mutually encourage each other by never breaking our steady pace over the undulating terrain.
With 10 miles to go, we come to an aid station. We both stand beneath a hose for a few seconds enjoying temporary relief from the heat. I eat bananas and several mochi (a glutinous rice cake stuffed with sweetened red bean paste) to the delight of the volunteers.
I leave just ahead of the 4th place runner and engage the next five miles of steep, downhill, paved road with all that I have. And then, everything suddenly comes into focus. I forget about the race, the runners behind me and those ahead. The pain sears in my legs and lower back from the pounding of the concrete. I make abstraction of the discomfort as if I were an outside observer watching this body hurtling down the hill. It feels as if I’m propelled into a momentary vacuum of space and time, running in the footsteps of the marathon monks.
And there, for an instant, I perceive a shrapnel of their experience, where running is the way to humility, to clarity and a path to ultimate awakening.